Art In History Art Blog
I am turning from Degas to Manet, the other "older" Impressionist, though - unlike Degas - he never accepted the term as applied to his work. Like Degas, he had a strong traditional background in form and composition which he used to great advantage. Paradoxically, Manet is in many ways the most radical of the group, certainly the most confrontational.
It is fascinating to compare Manet to Courbet, the great revolutionary of the previous generation. It was Courbet who broke with the Academie, setting up his own competing exhibition, thus blazing the trail which the Impressionists then followed. But while Courbet's revolution was all about class warfare and social justice, Manet's is all about art itself. Manet uses confrontation to force the viewer to look at art in a new way.
One neon sign to his intentions is his obvious reference to earlier works of art; in a very direct way, his paintings are about art. The "Olympia" which we see at the top of the page is a prime example: it is a clear reworking of Titian's famous "Venus of Urbino" which would have been known to all his viewers. The Titian itself is radical in making eye contact with the viewer, breaking the long tradition of "voyeuristic" nudes where the subject is unaware of the viewer. Titian softens the pill by adding a dog (faithfulness) and the marriage chest.
Manet strips away those softening touches, and makes the viewer more than a voyeur: he is a visitor to a Parisian courtesan. The dog has been replaced by a black cat hissing directly at you, the intruder, while the maid delivers your bouquet of flowers. All of which tells you to stop looking for titillation and look instead at the paint. The buttery richness of the paint in the nude is only matched by the marvellous paintwork in the bouquet - fantastic! In other words, don't get mad, enjoy the painting.
A very instructive comparison is Manet's "Fifer" to the figure of "Gilles" by Watteau. Again Manet has found a significant predecessor in earlier art. The way the Watteau figure presents himself to the viewer, unleavened by story or action, is unheard of, and must have fascinated Manet. This unvarnished presentation is at the core of most of his works. Both figures seem to say "I'm just here; deal with it".
I'll include one further artistic reference, to Goya's impassioned "Executions of the Third of May". It is one of many Manet salutes to Spanish art, which he admired greatly. Manet uses the Goya as the basis for his "Execution of Maximillian" a similarly emotional and controversial moment...until Manet defuses it. He replaces Goya's menacing firing squad with a line of "toy soldiers", eliminates Maximilian as a hero by erasing his face in smoke...leaving only the play of lights and darks and the paint.
I turn now to what I see as the most interesting aspect of manet's later work: the psychological isolation of his figures. I see him as the first "urban" artist; that is, the first artist to notice how the city brings us into accidental conjunction with strangers in meaningless patterns. The "Barmaid", a subject which Manet did several times, brings two heads into "cosmic alignment", one directly above the other, neither aware of each other, in a conjunction which is meaningless and will disappear in a flash.
But it isn't just strangers. One of my favorite Manets is "The Train Station" showing a mother and daughter bound together not only by blood ties but also by color harmonies. The symphony of blues and whites is delightful! But when we look again we see that neither is aware of the other, both lost in their own thoughts; they could be miles apart. You think at first that the mother is looking at you, the viewer, but a closer look shows that she is looking into space. And knowing Manet, you must see this in the long tradition of mother and child paintings, and be struck by the lack of a psychological bond.